Tools for Couples Happiness — 02 November 2003
The choice is up to you

When we allow life’s demands to overwhelm us we may feel powerless and
victimized. Some people end up depressed and others distraught. This is
a correctable and avoidable process.

In my psychology practice I hear people lament about their busy lives.
Work, tasks and responsibilities demand so much of their time and energy
that they have little left for their relationship – or even for their
children. They say: “We don’t have time to talk, we are so busy”, “we have to do so much, that we are irritable and impatient with each
other”, “we are chronically exhausted”.

These are the words of well intentioned but misguided couples. What they
have lost is the sense of priority and personal power. It is very true
that the laundry needs to be done, the dishes washed and the bills paid.
But all these tasks are in service of our lives rather than the essence
of them. When we allow these chores to become the highest priority, our
emotional well being is in jeopardy.

Being driven to accomplish all the daily tasks may lead us to feeling
oppressed. It is as though the laundry is our master and we are its

The language we use in urging ourselves to do it all – is often very
commanding. If you listen to yourself, while reciting your jobs-list,
you may hear, ” I have to do this and I have to do that and later I have
to do one more thing”. As your list expands you may feel a sense of
importance about how needed and busy you are, but in fact your self-talk
is defeating.

If I say to myself that I HAVE TO do something, I am likely to either do
it and feel resentful- or not do it and feel guilty. These reactions are
common for children who see their parents demands as oppressive, but
must comply to thrive. They may rebel at times and feel guilty, or they
may comply and feel resentful about their subservient status. As adults, by using the same phrases, we produce similar childlike
reactions. Even though the directive comes from us, it is a command

My personal insight about the shift from resentment to empowerment,
occurred as follows:
One evening while washing dishes after dinner I felt resentful about
having to do this chore by myself.
“Why do I HAVE TO do the dishes while everyone else went their way?” I
asked myself. “Well, do I really HAVE TO do the dishes?” “What are my
options?” I wondered.
“I could ask the kids or my husband to do the dishes. I could hire
someone to clean the kitchen nightly. I could buy a dishwashing machine.
I could leave them in the sink until I ran out of plates. I could eat
out every night. I could break the dishes after every meal and buy new
ones. I could serve on paper plates and avoid the need for washing
dishes.” After exploring and rejecting each option, it occurred to me
that I DID NOT HAVE TO do the dishes. Rather, I CHOSE to do them.
Miraculously, my resentment vanished.
The facts did not change, I was still at the sink, but instead of
feeling victimized, I felt empowered.

In changing my internal dialogue, using different words, I gained a
measure of power and autonomy. In shifting from I HAVE TO, to I AM
CHOOSING TO- I felt liberated and in charge.
I began to use the word “choice” for all my thoughts, actions and feelings.

Adult behaviors, thoughts and feelings are chosen. Behaviors and
thoughts can be changed at will. Modifying the thought that created them
can alter feelings.
For example, if you feel sad, you need to change the thought that
preceded the sad feelings- to feel happy again. For feelings that you
want to keep for awhile, ask yourself how long you are going to stay
angry, sulk, whine, or be giddy. It is all up to you!

You can decide to tell yourself that you are choosing to make dinner, go
to work, or make a call. As you say it you may assess the choice and
alter it- if it is unsatisfactory.

Life is not your persecutor and you are not its victim. It only seems
this way when you are not clear about your power to decide how to run
your life. Trusting that you are in charge of yourself, your emotions
and actions – frees you to manage your life’s tasks with confidence and

It would be nice if couples saw their relationship, kids and family as
their highest priority and then problem solved how to get life’s chores
done. It is all manageable for partners who share the same priority list. Believing that sharing love and intimacy are the highest marital and
family goals- helps partners create a well-managed and happy life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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